High anxiety is a pumpkin patch on a sunny autumn day. As soon as I see the cars lining the rural highway, bleeding out of the dusty parking lot like spilled milk, I know I am in for it. I will stuff the anxiety away though, bury it deep down in my solar plexus where it can’t taunt me. As I exit the vehicle I see a 3 foot tall dust devil whipping it’s way towards me and the hellish landscape of dried hay piles, inflated air bellies dotted with hillbilly children, a disheveled corn maze about 2 months past it’s freshness date, a corn pit that looks like a redneck aquarium, and of course a U-PICK-EM pumpkin patch that looks like it’s been ransacked by an army of Black Friday shoppers. The bile builds in me, but I push it back down. I see pear-shaped dads sucking down Busch Light beer, and deep port-o-san lines. I see wrist bands, fun tickets, food trucks, wagon rides, Instagram photo ops, rotting tractors, American flag festooned haybales, and multiple school buses (on a Saturday?). How do you explain to your significant other, friend or neighbor that a situation like this is the equivalent to being waterboarded in your mind? This is supposed to be the familial American Dream. A right of passage that must be shared and celebrated every year of your children’s youth until they are 35.
How do I explain that my mind is like the stacked bachelor closet John Candy opens in Uncle Buck, a perfect Jenga tower that cannot be so much as breathed on or it will all come tumbling down on top of you. Then as soon as the avalanche subsides, a jet black bowling ball conks you on the head. This is my half-assed explanation of what social anxiety is like when you no longer allow yourself to self-medicate with Busch Light beer. Your fight or flight gauge is all messed up and goes off at the wrong times. A wild grizzly bear isn’t chasing you idiot, you just have to force yourself to sit at a picnic table with a couple of strangers because your back hurts from standing. Your mind doesn’t know the difference though, your mind says FLEE! NOW! MOTHERF*CKER! Now imagine there was something to take the edge off everyone of those situations, and you did that in every one of them…for over 20 years. Then you stopped and it was like coming out of a coma and you were in a Talking Heads song. And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile…And you may find yourself in a beautiful house…
That night I revisited the film No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers classic. My fellow Minnesotans, my countrymen. Surely they will understand me and light my way through the dark cobwebs of time of space. Out of any film I own I would say this one is truly “my aesthetic” if you could call it that. The boxy late 70s/early 80s vehicles, the trailer park, the paneling, the Mills Fleet Farm style cowboy shirts, the bad bowl haircuts, the cheap motels, and lots of brown. Really the whole movie is the color brown, some yellow, and maybe a few different shades of rust if you’re feeling generous. The only loud primary colors seem to be on the obnoxious signs for the cheap motels. Motels like the Del Rios Motel, which trumpets FREE HBO. I always loved that one. That’s how they hook ya. In Winona, MN it was gems like The Sterling Motel, The Sundown Motel, and The El Rancho.
When I was young I don’t think I heard the word anxiety mentioned in conversation even one time. I certainly didn’t think anything of an anxiety attack, until it was used as a punchline in mobster movies with Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal. To this day my mother makes fun of me whenever I get in that old “fight or flight” mode too quickly in public situations. She will say “Bambenek’s meat counter!” and laugh and laugh, until I am filled with rage inside (which I push to my solar plexus). She is referring to when she would send us to the mom and pop store on the corner to buy meat and other delicacies, and I would make my brother go to the counter because I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Just like in No Country For Old Men, “you can’t stop what’s comin'”, but you can throw your younger siblings in front of it. Most of my youth and adolescence I was like Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, observing from afar with my binoculars. My family life was like the crime scene of the drug deal gone bad, horrible things happening on multiple fronts as the young deputy Wendell says to the grizzled Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: “Wild West over here, Execution style over there.”
When Llewelyn Moss returns to his beloved wife and his trailer park trailer, all I can think about is baseball. I think of when I was a kid and immediately after a ballgame my mother took me to a dilapidated trailer court. My mother had fire in her eyes that day. She barged right into one of the paneled monstrosities with no remorse, there was a lot of loud yelling, and then my mother took our giant maroon boat of a car and rammed it into the parked car in front of her. The car belonged to the woman who lived in the trailer. It was maybe the only time I ever remember seeing pure hatred and violence in my mother’s eyes. I still had my baseball uniform on – sweaty and dirty the way 8 year olds get on hot Sunday afternoons. I remember staring at my garage sale cleats for what seemed like an hour, no iPad for the kids in those days. Just sitting in a hot car with the windows down fighting with your brother. Of course you know I eventually sent him to the door of the trailer to knock on it (Bambenek’s Meat Counter!), in hindsight this was genius because how could this disaster continue with the sight of a 5 year old peering through your trailer’s screen door asking for his mother? Oh yes, that ended the little spat quite urgently. Then the dull thud of bumper on bumper. Until that moment I didn’t know you could actually hit cars with other cars or what that felt like. I still think of that sound every time I slide into some poor saps bumper when the dreaded black ice flares up on the Minnesota tundra. I used to fixate on that moment, that moment of sheer frustration my mother had. How could she lose her cool like that. Nowadays I just wonder what was actually going on in that trailer? What could they have been possibly talking about for that long? Was it just him and her? Was it the 3 of them? Was it just the two women? Did she catch them in the act? I still don’t know to this day, I’ve never spoken to either of them about it. Eventually that weird woman in the trailer became my stepmother. This was 1983 or 1984? My mom must have been 31 or 32 years old. Hard to fathom really, I’m 15 years past that age now. None of it really matters anymore. My dad is now happily single. His three bouts of marriage and a dust up with cancer in the rearview mirror…for now.
Throughout my childhood and beyond, most of the relationships I’ve had have been toxic in some way. Whether they were actually toxic or toxic substances were consumed throughout them really doesn’t matter at this point. The thing I take out of No Country for Old Men though, is the “Agua” scenario…my lifelong Kobayashi Maru. There is a dying man that Llewelyn Moss comes across, a Mexican man gasp-asking for water. Like Llewelyn I always act tough with my anxiety, “I ain’t GOT no Agua.” Then I go home, toss and turn all night, say f*ck it, and fill an industrial-sized milk jug with dirty tap water and go clomping off into the night. My whole life every relationship I have had (including with myself), is like going back to the thing that is dying to try and revive it…only to get entangled in a whole different mess that may not even be of my creation. But it ultimately is my creation though isn’t it? I always think of that Cat Power song “The Greatest” which coincidentally was popular around the time of NCFOM. “Once I wanted to be the greatest.” Do you always want that? Or do most of us give up in middle age at some point? I don’t think I ever wanted to be the greatest, unless someone told me I wasn’t. Then I would fight with them to prove that I was. I suppose you can avoid participating in life for a while. Until you can’t. Call it fate. Call it karma. Call it Occam’s Razor. Anton Chigurh would just plain ask you to “Call it.” Friendo.
Recently I drove to Winona to go across the river to an enormous “Auto Graveyard” with acres and acres of gnarled, mashed up vehicles dating all the way back to the 1930s. I drug my dad along. It wasn’t like the pumpkin patch. It was zero stress. I just took pictures of the decayed, sun drained skeleton cars like a deranged crime scene photographer. I asked my dad to tell me whenever he saw a car that he or someone he knew used to drive. There were many rowdy North Dakota stories told, but I could tell the ones he liked best were the high school memories. The ones where half the town jammed into the backseat on the way to the football game. It was real American Graffiti shit. We spent the entire time looking for a certain type of Corvair. When we found it, the look of utter nostalgia that washed over him was something I’ve never seen before and I would dare to say was worth the 2 hour hike. The car was brown, like the color of shit. But it had a bunch of red wildflowers growing out of it.
Before we made our way to the car tombstones, my dad and I stopped for a sandwich in town. In a conversation that was not unlike the conversation Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has with his Uncle Ellis after the heavy business in the film goes down…we briefly discussed the past. My dad was remorseful and wistful as he always is (I only see him a few times a year so I’m sure those aren’t his only moods). He always wants to know why one of my brothers or sister or whoever isn’t talking to him. These are scenarios that change with the weather in my family. I told him, maybe they are just the type of people who can’t let things go. I could tell he didn’t like that answer, but begrudgingly accepted it. I also told him I was one of those people until I got sober, and that I’ve moved on. My dad told the story of his grandfather’s brother who went “crazy” and up and left his family out of the blue. He’s told me this story 3 other times. “Nobody knew where he went for years and years. Finally someone tracked him down near the end of his life in a remote shack somewhere in the middle of Montana.” Then my dad added something to the end of the story, something he never said before. “I’ve always thought that kind of thing runs in our family, it definitely did with me.”
After my near nervous breakdown at the pumpkin patch and subsequent escape out the side of the corn maze with my son melting down… I realized how much is passed between generations. My meltdown on my wife included telling her I hate corn mazes and I don’t want to go in. I also warned that my son wouldn’t make it either. He kept taking off away from the group until finally he realized that he hated it in there. We both bailed and tried to make it to the exit, but got lost and realized we didn’t have the stupid map (a classic Swart trait). So we both just went off the path and shot for daylight. My son wanted to just be alone in the redneck aquarium corn pit. It is exactly what I would have done at that age. In the past I’d end up alone at the beer stand or alone in my basement with a silo of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Now it’s just me and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Ed Tom Bell is telling me about a dream he had about his father.
It’s my dad’s birthday today, so I’ll finish up with another story he told me over that sandwich. My dad went to his high school reunion in North Dakota this summer. Their school is so tiny they have what’s called an “all class” reunion where everyone goes. So my Dad went with one of his brothers. While they were there, they headed off into the god forsaken Plains to the town of Grace City (pop.63) to the pocket-sized cemetery which houses my grandparents and great-grandparents. When I was last there for the funeral of my grandmother, my dad made a joke that he was also going to be buried there so we all had to drive 6 hours out of our way again. But apparently he was serious. He went out there again a year and a half later and was bartering with the old farmer who owns the plots of land. My dad said the guy was “hemming and hawing” about the price like it was going to cost my father an arm and a leg. When the old farmer finally stopped contemplating and settled on a figure, he simply spouted out “A hundred bucks.”
“Well in that case,” said my father, “I’ll take all 5 plots!” The farmer was happy. Then my dad flashed his toothy grin and said “but when I go in you’ll have to bury me at a slant so I can look at my Grandfather’s farm.” Then my father immediately tried to get his brother to buy one of the plots from him for $500. Which is exactly what I would have done to my brother, right after I had him haggle with the Farmer while I watched from the car with a pair of binoculars.
I took a drive today
Time to emancipate
I guess it was the beatings… made me wise
But I’m not about to give thanks, or apologize. -Eddie Vedder